The threat of eviction looms large over seven Muslim tribal families living in the Bakarwal mohalla near Nagrota in the outskirts of Jammu. The families received notices which asked them to vacate their houses and leave.
A week ago, when Forest Department officials visited 50-year-old Mohammad Fareed’s house with a notice, he was shocked. The notice said his and seven other Muslim tribal families had to vacate their houses. Fareed said they did not accept the notice.
Later, Fareed and other male members from the neighbourhood visited the Forest Department, where they claimed to have been threatened. “We were told if we don’t vacate the land, they will ransack our house, thrash us and throw us out,” Fareed told NewsClick. He said that the land belongs to his ancestors and that they had been living here for the past 60 years.
“I have all the documents with me. The officials even checked the documents but asked why Bakarwals need land as we are always on the move,” he said.
Mohammad Ashraf, another member of the community from the area, said that they were told there was no “need” to educate their children and occupy the land.
“We were told that there is no need to educate our children as we are vagabonds and our children will follow us into the same line of work; that education is a waste for them,” he said.
Divisional Forest Officer Alok Moriya rejected claims that the Bakarwals were threatened. He, however, refrained from giving away much about the notice. “Yes, there has been an ongoing eviction drive on land which was encroached illegally. If they have received the notice, they can come to our office and clarify if the land belongs to them. It is procedure,” he said.
Following the incident, a protest under the banner of DOM (Dalit OBC Minority) – an organization working to safeguard the rights of vulnerable sections of society – took place at Ambedkar Chowk in Jammu. The organisation also served a memorandum to Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, apprising him of the issue of “illicit removal of tribals from their habitations in the outskirts of Jammu city”.
“There have been recorded cases on social media regarding state agencies forcefully removing the tribals from their houses…We would like to bring your attention to the issue and demand proper rehabilitation of these tribals and only after they are rehabilitated, the demolition process should begin (sic),” read the memorandum.
A year after Centre unilaterally abrogated the special status accorded to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370, tribal communities like the Gujjars and Bakarwals, who have been stripped of their rights for decades, are, once again, feeling the heat. “The BJP had made big promises to the tribals and other minorities after the abrogation of Article 370. But what we are witnessing is that they are even being thrown out of homes. What kind of empowerment is this?” asked R.K. Kalsotra, in-charge of DOM and J&K president, All India Confederation of SC/ST/OBC Organisations.
The communities, which together constitute a sizeable population of almost 12% in the state, are largely nomadic Muslim groups. Categorised as Scheduled Tribes, they have been facing marginalisation for decades. It was said that the abrogation of special status would empower the tribal population of Jammu and Kashmir. However, it has been over a year and yet the Forest Rights Act, granting rights to forest dwellers, remains unimplemented.
This is not the first time such action is being taken either. There have been attempts to evict the tribal community out of Jammu after the BJP forged an alliance with the PDP in 2015. Commentators believe that in the name of evicting forest land encroachers, the government has been targeting the nomadic community. Speaking to NewsClick, Javaid Rahi, General Secretary, Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation said: “They are not going to target big fishes in the pond who are encroaching on forest land. They will target these poor people and show that they have evicted the encroachers. Here, the question is not of religion but of power.”
Rahi said that since August 5, 2019, the Centre’s laws have been extended to the union territory and that the community can go to court and lay claim on the land under the Forest Rights Act. Notably, the extension of the Act to Jammu and Kashmir has yet not been notified as yet.
Sheikh Shakeel, a lawyer, said that the eviction of the Bakarwals is based on flimsy grounds and that if they are to be evicted, their right to life and basic amenities have to be secured and they should be resettled. Speaking to NewsClick, the prominent lawyer from Jammu, said: “These people have been living here for the last 60 years. The Forest Department is saying it is their land and the Bakarwals should leave. Where will these poor people go? If you are uprooting them, there should be talk of their rehabilitation too. Are they not people of Jammu and Kashmir? If they want to retrieve forest land, first they should come up with a policy for the rehabilitation of tribal community.”
Recently, at a press conference in Srinagar, activist Talib Hussain accused the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) of further marginalising the tribal community, saying that since the abrogation of Article 370, “the government implemented several laws but did not implement the Forest Act which would benefit the region’s third largest population, which is the tribal population.”